Emerging Voices in Black Game Studies

This panel highlights emerging scholars in Black game studies. Topics include Black worldbuilding in and Eacross games (Fletcher), the relationship between avatar representation and Black user experience in social VR (DeVeaux), and perceptions of Black male exceptionalism in gaming cultures (Dashiell).

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Meet The Panelists


Image of Dr. Akil Fletcher

Dr. Akil Fletcher: Dr. Fletcher is an award-winning anthropologist and a Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Princeton University who earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California Irvine. Fletcher researches and teaches about the lived experiences of Black individuals in online gaming spaces, particularly how Black communities use digital platforms to form selfhood and relationships in gaming spaces while circumventing forms of racism and anti-Blackness in games like Final Fantasy XIV and communication platforms like Discord. His work has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the University of California.

Image of Cyan DeVeaux

Cyan DeVeaux:DeVeaux is a 3rd year Communication Ph.D. Candidate at Stanford University. As a member of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab and Human-Computer Interaction Group, she researches the psychological, behavioral, and sociocultural implications of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Her current work explores identity, culture, and embodiment in social AR/VR. DeVeaux is a recipient of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Stanford Graduate Fellowship in Science & Engineering, and Stanford Technology & Racial Equity Graduate Fellowship.

Image of Dr. Steven Dashiell

Dr. Steven Dashiell:Dashiell is a visiting affiliate researcher in the Game Center of American University, and holds a PhD in Language, Literacy, and Culture. Dashiell’s work focuses on the sociology of language and the nature of discourse in male-dominated spaces, notably gaming, military, and other subcultures. He has published research regarding online discourse, gaming, and masculinity in the Journal of Men’s Studies, Sexuality & Culture, and Games & Culture, among other places.


Summary

Gaming can provide avenues for Black gamers to explore self-identity and form communities, but racial biases both within gaming communities and across digital media can constrain such identity exploration and community interaction.

While all Black gamers contend with racial biases and expectations in digital media, Blackness is not a monolith, and Black gamers across different demographics and gaming mediums respond to this anti-blackness in different ways. The panelists describe some of these different ways in greater detail: Fletcher explains how communities are being created between digital spaces are reacting to this anti-blackness, DeVeaux describes impacts and responses to racial bias in social VR, and Dashiell highlights how the myriad expectations placed on Black men to be authentic are further complicated by the expectations around gamers.

As you read about each panelist’s presentations, consider how their insights and ideas could impact your own projects.

Creating Black Worlds – Looking for New Realities in Gaming

Dr. Akil Fletcher

 

Fletcher explains that “building within the ashes of fire” is something that is very common to Black life. Hush harbors, barbershops, and “the hood” are all examples of environments where Black individuals have been able to thrive and create culture despite neglect and hostility from outside environments. With the advent of Internet and video games, Black people have been given new digital worlds to explore, as well as new digital fires that make existence in these spaces difficult. It’s not just that Black representation is lacking in these games and digital spaces, but that these places, whether on World on Warcraft, Twitter, or Discord, are frequently toxic to Black existence.

Communities are being built up within and between these digital spaces to combat this toxicity; such communities allow Black people to continue to exist in these spaces and build new worlds they want to see. Dr. Fletcher uses the term ‘Black intermediality’ to describe this world between worlds or combination of digital spaces and games to create protection against hostility faced by Black gamers.

It is important to note that blackness is not a monolith, and responses to anti-blackness have been varied in the construction of the worlds. Fletcher makes it clear that these Black intermedial spaces are not defined by anti-blackness but by a love of engaging with the Black community outside of a relation to whiteness.

Reflection questions: What kinds of possibilities do these online spaces offer to Black users in contrast to offline spaces? What are the limitations of these spaces, and what are the responses to these limitations? In what other spaces do people who are marginalized or oppressed negotiate ways to thrive?

“These worlds, while they are in response to anti-blackness, are not defined by anti-blackness. They are spaces that have been created with a love and beauty of engaging with Black community outside of what it is to be related outside of its colonial relation with whiteness. These gaming spaces, despite whatever issues they may have, are providing Black individuals the opportunity to explore that Black identity when it is removed.”

                                                     – Dr. Akil Fletcher

The Racialized Experiences of Avatar Embodiment Among Black Social VR Users

Cyan DeVeaux

 

DeVeaux argues that social virtual reality (VR) allows for highly immersive environments for its users, providing avenues to digital self-representation. DeVeaux notes that, on the social VR platform VRChat, avatars are ingrained into its social fabric and “become the site for connecting, play, community-building, as well as exploring identity.” Despite these possibilities, opportunities to create avatars are affected by biases that deeply shape the racialized experiences of Black users.

Through a virtual ethnographic study, DeVeaux found that there is a default of whiteness as standard with avatar systems on VRChat. The predominant theme, DeVeaux found, was that all Black users had to consciously navigate VRChat's racial bias:

  • Opportunities to customize avatars’ skin tones were infrequent, and darker-skinned avatars’ skin tones often faced technical issues that were not present for lighter-skinned avatars
  • Some Black users opted to use non-Black avatars to avoid racist attacks from other users
  • Black users who did want to use Black avatars had to navigate VRChat’s user-generated avatar community to request such avatars
  • Some members of the avatar creator community told Black users they would have to edit their avatars themselves if they wanted non-white versions of their avatars

DeVeaux notes that social VR allows users to experience presence, or the feeling of “being there” in their environment and in their avatar. These immersive qualities of the platform mean that differences between physical and virtual avatar attributes for Black users are particularly noticeable. DeVeaux’s ongoing experimental studies will uncover more about the psychological impacts of this discrepancy.

Reflection questions: What can developers and community members of social VR platforms do to reduce biases in avatar systems? How might avatar discrepancies and a lack of customization options affect racialized users in other immersive VR contexts? How do the impacts of avatar bias show up in other digital platforms like games or social media?


“While acknowledging that, yes, progress has been made when it comes to avatar racial representation, racial disparities still do exist within these worlds and are evolving into new mediums. I think it is important for the stakeholders within this just to take note of both the similar and unique ways that racial biases are expressed within these newer immersive contexts of both virtual reality and augmented reality.”

– Cyan DeVeaux

The Effect of Cultural Capital on African American Men Who Game

Dr. Steven Dashiell

 

Dashiell describes how Black men deal with a web of expectations of what it means to be “authentic” Black men. Drawing on prior work on Black masculinity, Dashiell notes that Black men are expected to act more mature, negotiate with their gender and cultural capital, and live in collaboration with and in defiance of societal images of Black men. Dashiell highlights how authentic Black male excellence is correlated with the ideal of achieving success through hard work.

This ideal of hard work for men in general fuels what Dashiell calls a “manchild panic,” which comes from a fear that video games are distracting men from their societal responsibilities. Recent trends towards men becoming increasingly uninterested in marriage or higher education appear to reinforce this idea, hence increased efforts to move men away from video games.

Black men have their leisure choices vilified more than other demographics, and despite the social benefits to leisure, there is a psychological cost for Black men who are unable to fully engage in leisure. People of color are often seen as illegitimate participants in virtual spaces, and Black men in particular face an othering within their communities, negotiating with the expectations placed on gamers as well as a need to retain Black authenticity. Gaming capital involves the integration of practices that are not “Black”. This puts a strain on authenticity for Black gamers, who have what Dashiell terms as a constrained masculinity that is caught between an intersection of expectations of being an authentic gamer and an authentic Black man.

Reflection questions: What does it mean for someone to be an ‘authentic’ gamer, and what ways does this gamer authenticity clash with ideas of Black male authenticity? How do internal differences of class and education within the Black male community change this relation to these conflicting ideas of authenticity? How do your own research practices account for the conflicting imperatives of identity that players and developers face?


“Black men particularly are under scrutiny from both the macro standpoint—being Black men who are gaming—and the meso-standpoint, which is being Black men who are gaming and part of the Black community.”

                                                  – Dr. Steven Dashiell


Key Terms

Black intermediality: The networks of digital spaces and games that Black players form together to experience community and thrive within hostile, toxic gaming spaces. These spaces do not exist within a single game or social network but rather across multiple media platforms.
Racialized experiences in Social VR: While social VR allows for an especially immersive exploration of digital self-representation, the avenues within social VR platforms for this exploration are affected by racial biases that shape the experiences of Black users. Black social VR users have to contend with a default of whiteness in avatar creation tools and face struggles in acquiring darker-skinned avatars that users with non-white avatars do not experience.
Black masculinity: Affected by Black cultural capital, Black male exceptionalism, masculine gender capital – Black men are expected to act more mature, negotiate gender and cultural capital as Black men, and live in collaboration and defiance of societal images of Black men. The idea of Black male excellence is correlated with potentials for success achieved through hard work. As such, Black masculinity is a constrained masculinity caught between an intersection of expectations.